As Supreme Court clash nears, senator ends all-night speech
WASHINGTON – A Democratic senator yielded the Senate floor Wednesday after talking through the night to highlight his party’s opposition to President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
But the theatrics from Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley could not change the outcome, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans prepared to steamroll Senate rules in order to eliminate Democrats’ ability to block Gorsuch with a filibuster.
Merkley spoke all night, for more than 15 hours, finally stopping midmorning Wednesday with a final plea to colleagues to oppose Gorsuch, 49, a deeply conservative federal appeals court judge from Denver.
“This is an extreme nominee from the far right who doesn’t believe in the fundamental vision of ‘We the People’ and makes decision after decision through tortured, twisted, contrived arguments defined for the powerful over the people, and that is unacceptable,” Merkley said.
Following Merkley on the floor, McConnell ridiculed the opposition from Democrats.
“Democrats would filibuster Ruth Bader Ginsburg if President Donald Trump nominated her,” said McConnell, R-Ky., naming one of the more liberal sitting justices. “There is simply no principled reason to oppose this exceptional, exceptional Supreme Court nominee.”
The Senate is now pointed to a showdown Thursday, when Democrats will try to block Gorsuch’s confirmation, and Republicans will then unilaterally change Senate rules to lower the threshold required to advance Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
The change would apply to future Supreme Court nominees as well, allowing them to get on the court without bipartisan support, which could lead to a more ideologically polarized court over time. More immediately, Gorsuch’s confirmation to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia 14 months ago would restore the conservative voting majority that existed before Scalia’s death.
Lawmakers of both parties bemoaned the coming blowup, warning it threatens to further undermine Senate traditions of bipartisanship and consensus.
“I fear that someday we will regret what we are about to do. In fact, I am confident we will,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a floor speech. “It is imperative we have a functioning Senate where the rights of the minority are protected regardless of which party is in power at the time.”
McCain and others were already predicting that the Senate would also end up eliminating the 60-vote requirement for legislation, one of the few mechanisms that forces bipartisan outcomes on Capitol Hill. However, McConnell pledged Tuesday that the legislative filibuster would not be removed on his watch.
And despite the bipartisan hand-wringing, attempts by a few rank-and-file lawmakers to come up with a compromise to head off the rule change did not get far. McConnell has said he has the votes to kill the Supreme Court filibuster, which he can do with a simple majority, and the 52 Senate Republicans, including McCain, seem likely to hang together on the vote.
Republicans said it was all Democrats’ fault for trying to filibuster a well-qualified nominee. Democrats blamed Republicans, citing the GOP blockade last year against Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s pick for the high court, who never even got a hearing. Instead, Republicans kept the seat open so Trump could fill it, and the president’s choice of Gorsuch, who was recommended by conservative groups, will allow the White House to claim a major victory when he is confirmed, a bright spot amid the debris of legislative failures and investigations.
On Tuesday evening McConnell officially filed a “cloture” motion, the procedural step designed to end debate on a nomination and bring it to a final vote. That started the clock toward showdown votes on Thursday. The coming rules change is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” because of the potential repercussions for the Senate and the court.
Gorsuch now counts 55 supporters in the Senate: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won last November – Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch’s home state of Colorado, has said he will not join in the filibuster against Gorsuch but has not said how he will vote on final passage.
Merkley’s lengthy speech, while not technically a filibuster because it did not prevent or delay a planned vote, did qualify as the eighth-longest floor speech in Senate history at 15 hours and 27 minutes, according to the Senate historical office.